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Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Santa Claus (1959)

Director: René Cardona
Stars: José Elías Moreno, Pulgarcito, José Luis Aguirre and Armando Arriola
I'm driving the highway to Cinematic Hell in 2010 for the awesome folks at Cinema Head Cheese to post a review a week of the very worst films of all time. These are so bad that they make Uwe Boll look good.

Given that summer is here and the temperatures in west Phoenix are dancing around a hundred, I felt it was time for Mexican Christmas, courtesy of K Gordon Murray. He didn't just bring bizarre Mexican horror movies like The Brainiac north of the border, he brought a lot of bizarre Mexican movies for kids too, this one perhaps the most famous and the most bizarre of the bunch. Also, given that I'm writing while Arizona waits for SB1070 to become law and the substantial Hispanic population talks about the potential for racial discrimination, I couldn't help but read into this film commentary on how Mexicans see themselves. The best reality is found in fantasy, after all, and this one goes whole hog, way out there, because the Mexican Santa Claus, while obviously well known enough to get a movie of his very own, really isn't that similar to the equivalents we know from our own countries. In fact this Santa Claus mythology is well, rather customised.

There are a few things that remain consistent. He does look like the fat Santa we know with his red suit and white beard. He has a jolly laugh, though it's a very tiring and rather sinister jolly laugh, one that goes beyond the comfort zone like the laugh you might expect a child molester to have. He spends Christmas dishing out presents to children too, which you might take as a given, but if you make it through this film you won't ever assume again. And that's about it, for everything else is a departure from canon. For a start, this Santa Claus doesn't live at the North Pole, he lives above it, 'away up in the heavens, far out in space, in a beautiful gold and crystal palace.' He doesn't have elves to help him, instead an international child labour force works his Toyland factory and we're forced to suffer through an interminable string of stereotypical songs with Santa accompanying the children on the organ, looking like Bert Lahr from The Wizard of Oz.

Toyland is a strange place, to put it mildly. Kringle doesn't force everyone to work in his factory, as the Aussies and Canadians apparently signed a treaty with him to avoid child labour in space. Everyone else seems to be stuffed into the Toyland dome though, which doesn't remotely meet international standards given that it snows inside. That's right: these kids are forced to work for Santa while it snows on them all day every day. Maybe the coolness of the snow is just to avoid this becoming a sweatshop. Santa also makes them work in traditional dress, and by that I mean that the African kids are in leopardskin loincloths with bones stuck to their heads. Let's all learn about stereotypes, boys and girls. This is educational so pay attention! There are no black people in the Caribbean, even Santa doesn't care about the colonials and hell, if the elves go on strike you can just hire a child labour force. It sounds like something the Texans conjured up.

Father Christmas also has a nemesis, because delivering gifts in this mythology is like a boss battle in a video game where you have to defeat your antagonist or the children go without for a year. This movie is aimed at little kids so the bad guy can't be too scary, naturally, but in Mexico, that apparently means a demon called Pitch who has the requisite red long johns, goatee and horns and works for Lucifer, the King of Hades. We meet him when Santa shows his child workers how to set off firecrackers indoors and suddenly we're in Hell watching a host of demons dance around a brimstone pit. Lucifer tasks Pitch with travelling to Earth to battle Santa and to turn kids to the dark side. If he screws up again King Lucifer will punish him harshly. 'Instead of eating red hot coals you'll eat chocolate ice cream,' he tells him. 'By the horns of everything Satanic!' Pitch replies because frozen meals are bad for his delicate digestion. No, I'm not kidding.

Perhaps because Santa can only visit Earth on Christmas Eve he has a magical observatory with the usual things: flashing lights, whirring dials and a pair of huge red lips. Yes, the main control console is shaped vaguely like a face with an inviting pair of lips and a phallic nose. Everything is anthropomorphic: the dreamscope is a rotating ear and the telescope is an eye that's rather reminiscent of a tripod from The War of the Worlds, a flamboyantly gay one with fake eyelashes. With this equipment Santa can do even more than a Pennsylvania school district. Not only can he zoom right into children's bedrooms and watch their every move, the dreamscope can even look into their dreams. Yes, jolly old Saint Nick is really Big Brother, with more computing power than the Echelon project and more knowledgeable about your darkest secrets than the NSA and Facebook combined. Wasn't anyone thinking of the children in Mexico back in 1959?

Santa also has a unique perspective on things, as we soon discover through his interaction with humanity, mostly in the form of five little Mexican children: rich boy Billy, poor girl Lupita and three unnamed bad boys who are more than susceptible to Pitch's influence. Santa reads Billy's dreams as suggesting that he just wants his parents to love him, but we can't help but wonder if imagining your parents in stand up coffins is more about instant inheritance. Do they love him? 'Maybe they do and maybe they don't,' says Santa. Lupita wants a doll and successfully resists the urges of Pitch to steal one but she can't resist scary life size dolls invading her dreams. They have coffins too which they escape to dance around her in the mist and persuade her to be evil. We can't tell if she's happy or not because actress Lupita Quezadas has one expression which is a sort of mildly panicked acceptance. If you played her at poker you'd believe she had four aces.

The only other Earthlings that Santa connects with are the ones who write him letters, which are blown by magic to Santa's space castle by the post office. One kid wants an atomic laboratory and a machine gun. 'So be it,' says Saint Nick because he's down with the terrorists. Maybe he found out about SB1070 through spying on Jan Brewer's dreams and decided to be proactive. It's liars that he doesn't like and he has an innate sense for detecting falsehoods so those letters go into the liar's box. There's a stork box too for those who want little brothers to beat up on, as Kringle has a partnership with the stork. He partners with a lot of unlikely people, some of whom live in his cosmic castle, like Vulcan, the redheaded master blacksmith who spends all his time making golden keys with annual expiry dates, that will get Santa through any door or gate on Earth. They're electric keys that would surely fall foul of the DMCA and have Santa sent to Gitmo.

There's also Merlin the Wizard, Santa's most devoted helper. I'm not sure if he has an atomic lab or a meth lab because he gets up to all sorts of wildly illegal shenanigans with exotic chemicals, especially dangerous given that he's suffering from an advanced stage of Alzheimer's disease. He has a pointed hat and cape covered with stars and moons, of course, and he skips along in his curly shoes humming the 1812 Overture. He has a pentagram on the wall and a goats head plaque on his fireplace, so he must be one of the good guys. Armando Arriola is the actor, better known as Arriolita, and he's by far the most fun thing about this movie, something akin to Q in the James Bond movies but blissfully off his rocker. He mixes magic stardust, a potent sleeping powder, in an urn made of copper, nickel, uranium, plutonium and platinum. No lead, of course, because that's dangerous. He has a flower to disappear too: just sniff it and you're invisible.
What Pitch would give to get hold of this sort of technology! It's like the Iraq war all over again. Father Christmas is the dumb but heroic Americans with space age tech that can make him invisible at a sniff or send people to sleep just by throwing stardust at them. Pitch represents the Iraqis, the evil empire, utterly inept but constantly trying to convert the children of the world to his nefarious master's twisted agenda. No wonder he has the three bad boys conjure up a plan to jump Santa when he lands, make him their slave and carjack his sleigh. Apparently even in Mexican movies from 1959 the kids are gangbangers! And yes, Santa has a sleigh, though it has some rather dangerous design flaws. To traverse the vast expanses of space he has a toy sleigh with no roof that's hauled by cackling clockwork reindeer who disintegrate in sunlight. I wonder why he didn't have Merlin design something more reliable than the Super Reindeer Special.

Pitch doesn't need a sleigh because he can just teleport. He also forms half an intriguing version of the angel/devil concept. He pops into being behind the kids' shoulders rather than on them, as the filmmakers didn't have an effects budget, to rub his hands, throw shapes and blow in their ears like a flagrantly gay child molester. Nobody sees him but children hear him subconsciously. They don't hear the narrator though because he only exists in the American release, dubbed in by K Gordon Murray himself under the pseudonym of Ken Smith. It doesn't stop him talking to them though in attempts to warn them of Pitch's latest nefarious schemes. It doesn't matter, of course, because Pitch is just as inept as Santa, who manages to almost hit the Moon on the way to the Earth because space apparently isn't particularly spacious. Maybe he has to avoid other space castles owned by folks like the Easter Bunny, the Stork and the Tooth Fairy.

The only character more inept than this version of Santa Claus isn't Pitch, it's the folks who wrote the story. I tend to overthink children's stories but I could see through glaring plot holes even when I was so young I thought wrestling was real. Some people who first saw this film as children recount ensuing nightmares, not of the hooded figures and crimson demons who live in Lucifer's domain or even of the concept that Satan has it in for Santa, which would be rather confusing for dyslexics, but of those cackling clockwork reindeer. Others wonder about the complex web of theology woven by the filmmakers. Santa works with Merlin and Vulcan to fight Lucifer, and they also partner with Jesus, hardly a combination you might expect in staunchly Catholic Mexico. Kringle asks Jesus to meet up on Earth to ensure peace and goodwill. Lupita asks for two dolls so she can give one to baby Jesus. He doesn't show up, but we get a biblical message as the coda.

The stereotypes are so politically incorrect, it's almost unbelievable that they aren't perpetrated by foreign racists but by the Mexicans themselves. It doesn't take much of a stretch to see Santa as an illegal alien, given that Mexico surely doesn't have a free travel agreement with the space fortress he maintains. He's a terrorist and arms dealer, given that he's happy to supply atomic laboratories and machine guns to little boys. He's a major drugs trafficker who maintains his own crops in space and brings the finished product down to Earth. He uses cocktails of remembrance to spike the drinks of Billy's parents so that they'll go home to be with their son. He only has to blow Merlin's sleeping powder in the general direction of any kids who may have stayed up late to catch a glimpse of him and they're out for the count, making this stuff a paedophile's dream, one that he's so careless with that he lets Pitch cut a hole in the bag and steal it all.

The creepy aspect is even highlighted directly in the film. After Santa loses his technological advantage over Pitch through sheer carelessness, Pitch traps him in a tree, sics the family dog on him and persuades the householder to call the authorities because there's a prowler outside coming to get his wife and children. By this point, we almost believe Pitch ourselves because this Santa Claus has got so creepy he's into creepy clown territory, the red suit being just another way to get close to the little objects of his affection so he can belly laugh at them and drug them into slumber. Don't forget that his castle is full of kids and he's spent much of the film thus far spying on children in their bedrooms. What leapt out at me most though was that he isn't even good at his job, given that this Christmas Eve he makes it to only three households, all in Mexico City, and he delivered coal to one of those. What happened to the rest of the world that year?

At least the ineptitude is consistent. Pitch isn't much better than Santa. His persuasions escalate kids from vandalism to kidnap and grand theft auto, and when they fail to achieve the goals he sets for them, he kicks their asses and leaves them to beat each other's brains out. His grand scheme to defeat Kringle is to move a single chimney on a single rooftop, which hardly ranks among the great grand schemes of cinematic villains, even if it's luckily the very chimney Saint Nick tries first. The local Mexicans are dumb too. The householder Pitch arouses with fear of an intruder is a chauvinistic coward. He has a pistol and he still wants the women to go first. The authorities must be stationed at Keystone given how long it takes them to get to their house. Even Lupita's father, mysteriously absent for most of the film, turns out to have been looking for work on the night of Christmas Eve, which only makes sense if he's a male prostitute.

There are good films, bad films and films so bad that they become good again in ways never intended by the filmmakers. This is bad, so bad that I'd have to rate Santa Claus Conquers the Martians higher, but it fits better in a fourth category, comprised of films that are so magnetic in their atrocity that you just can't turn your eyes away because you want to see if it's possible for them to get weirder. This is a film where you wonder what the filmmakers were smoking, as they were mostly experienced folk: director René Cardona racked up a hundred credits as an actor, forty as a screenwriter and a hundred and fifty as a director, as far back as 1925. Santa Claus is a strange companion to Night of the Bloody Apes and Wrestling Women vs the Aztec Mummy in his filmography, but it's more than a little diverse. It seems that he made anything his studio asked him to, whether he had a clue what it was about or not, even as a co-writer.

Most of the cast were well known enough to be credited by their stage names, José Elías Moreno an exception in the title role. Second billed is Pulgarcito, which translates roughly to Tom Thumb, a character Cesáreo Quezadas played a number of times, including his 1957 debut. Surely the success of that film must account for his high billing because he hardly gets anything to do as Pedro, Santa's little Mexican child slave. Pitch is Trotsky, or José Luis Aguirre, a choreographer as well as an actor, though that scares me given what he does as Pitch. Merlin is played by one of Mexico's most beloved actors, Armando Arriola, better known as Arriolita, and his portrayal of the well known wizard as a hopping Alzheimer's sufferer is a gift to cult audiences. Compared to him, Ángel Di Stefani as Vulcan is forgetful, even though he had played the Aztec Mummy three times. Lupita Quezadas and Antonio Diaz Conde hijo thankfully never acted again.

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